I love working with young children because, untrammelled by the fear of embarrassment, or of looking stupid, which so often manages to silence intelligent and educated adults, children of a certain age are unafraid of asking the glaringly obvious but really important questions. Particularly in relation to theological issues.
I can remember being asked, for example, by one small child who was totally on the ball: “If Jesus conquered death at Easter, why do people still die?” Another of my particular favourites was the question: “Before he created the universe, what did God spend his time doing?” And I was once telling the story of Pentecost, which we are celebrating today, to a particularly bright and sparky class from the local school, when one of the children, looking slightly puzzled, suddenly asked me an astonishingly good question, which was this: “Why did the disciples have to wait for the Holy Spirit to come at Pentecost when he was already here?”
That little boy was, of course, absolutely right: both the Old Testament and the New are packed with all kinds of references to the Spirit of God at work in the world, long before the story of Pentecost, which we heard in our reading from Acts. The Spirit is there in the opening Chapter of Genesis, moving upon the face of the waters at the dawn of Creation. The same Spirit inspired the Old Testament prophets, as in the famous words of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’.
And, of course, the Holy Spirit plays a role of central importance throughout the whole of the life and ministry of Jesus: the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit; at his baptism we are told how the Spirit descended upon Jesus, before immediately leading him (or driving him, depending on which Gospel you are reading) out into the wilderness where he was tempted for forty days. And during his active ministry Jesus is empowered by the Spirit to heal the sick and cast out demons.
The Spirit is everywhere. And we see the Spirit at work in an astonishing range of ways: bringing order out of chaos at the Creation, yet at times, bringing turbulence and chaos into the lives of the comfortable. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends with terrifying power, rushing winds and burning flames. But the Spirit is also a spirit of peace and calm – the still small voice – and is no less powerful and every bit as life-giving when working in those quieter, hidden ways.
I have a clergy friend who once told me that it had been suggested to her that every Pentecost she and her companion should pray to receive once of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. She confided in me afterwards: ‘I am starting to wonder whether we were wise to follow that advice: all kinds of extraordinary things certainly started to happen as a result – but you can’t imagine the trouble it’s causing!’ In other words, if you want a life that is quiet, and safe, and predictable, and uneventful, don’t meddle with the Holy Spirit!
But let’s go back to that little boy’s very good question about the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Because despite the fact that the Holy Spirit is most certainly at work prior to that event, which is the occasion we mark today, Pentecost does, nevertheless, have a very particular significance. Because the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost marks the dawning of a new era. An era that was foretold by the prophet Joel, who spoke of a time that was to come when the Lord would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. That era began when, at Pentecost, the Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus, empowering them to take the good news of his death and resurrection – the good news of the Messiah – to the ends of the earth.
The real significance of that highly dramatic event at Pentecost which we heard in our reading from Acts, full of rushing winds, and burning flames, and empowering the disciples with the gift of tongues, is that it marked the origin of the Church. And for that reason, Holy Spirit and Church were, and remain, absolutely inseparable. We cannot make sense of either one of them without reference to the other. The Spirit needs the vehicle of the Body of Christ, the Church, to take God’s love, and the good news of the Gospel out into the world; and the Church needs the Holy Spirit, to be empowered to fulfil that calling, and to remain true to that calling.
Every morning I when I say morning prayer downstairs in our main crypt chapel, I do so, very conscious of how deeply immersed I am in the history and tradition of this extraordinary church, St Brides. From where I sit for the morning office, I can see the remains of a Roman pavement dating back to the second century. I am reminded that I am joining in the worship of a Christian community on this site that dates back one thousand five hundred years: I can see before me the remains of the eleventh and twelfth century churches that stood here, long before Sir Christopher Wren created our present architectural masterpiece after the Great Fire of London, which was itself substantially rebuilt after the destruction of World War II. And I never fail to be touched by a powerful sense, not only of the history of this place, but also of the fact that this is a place where prayer has been valid, over many, many centuries. A place where the Holy Spirit has dwelt, and continues to be at work, sometimes in and through the most surprising of people and events.
We can see the Spirit at work in the beauty of this wonderful building; in the power of our glorious music, which lifts our hearts, and helps us to connect with the wonder and the majesty of the Living God. The Spirit of God continues to burn in the prayers and the hearts of the people of St Bride’s today, just as it has throughout our history. Yes, we are all of us broken vessels, with our failings and weaknesses and limitations and mistakes. But we are nevertheless still called to be Temples of God’s Holy Spirit; channels of his grace, and vehicles of his love. Because we are called to be the Body of Christ. And so we should be attentive at all times, and in all places, to the task of discerning where the Spirit is at work, and where he is calling us to be.
So how can we tell how and where the Spirit is indeed active, in our lives and in the people and events around us? There is no easy or straightforward answer to that precisely because the Spirit blows where it wills; it cannot be contained by our assumptions and expectations, nor does the Spirit work for our convenience or according to our preferred timetables; because if that were the case, it could not be the Spirit of God. But if we are alert, and attentive, and ready to be surprised by the Spirit, truly astounding things really do begin to happen.
One of the best descriptions of the Holy Spirit at work that I have ever come across is in a poem by the priest and poet, Mark Pryce, entitled: ‘The Holy Spirit speaks to fellow witnesses …’ where it is the voice of the Spirit that we hear speaking to us. I shall leave you with his poem, which goes like this:
It may seem to you as if I do not have a voice.
How does fire speak? How does light?
Must love have words?
Sometimes I am sheer energy, sometimes touch, sometimes stillness;
Mostly you can trace me in the quality of experience,
As a body senses out the way it dreams of being through a dance;
I am at play when a child leaps in the womb.
To know me is like the seeping-in of morning,
A shift from one world to another,
The power of becoming.
I move through walls, through the cells of flesh and prisons;
I open hearts and minds and eyes and ears and doors of every kind.
Being the Giver of gifts, I surprise –
You become my voice through a language not your own, which strangers understand,
With a song you sing in chains I may enchant the desolate.
I lead you in the finding-out of unfamiliar places:
Journey after journey becomes your home with me,
For I am a way of travelling,
I am your disturber, your companion, the interpreter
Of visions and of blinding moments.
Both the flow and the fracture may be evidence for my involvement.
I may overwhelm, I may conceal myself;
Listen for me, look for me, wait patiently with the patience I shall give
Until a time of my choosing.